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Does history show Hillary Clinton is unlikely to win the presidency in 2016?

REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
If she runs, Hillary Clinton’s potential to be the first woman president will be, on balance, an asset.

“History Shows that Hillary Clinton is unlikely to win the presidency in 2016” is the headline on a piece by John Judis in the New Republic.

Here’s the fact on which Judis builds his argument:

If you look at the presidents since World War II, when the same party occupied the White House for two terms in a row, that party’s candidate lost in the next election six out of seven times.

It’s not true, by the way. Judis either miscounted or is twisting the facts to strengthen his point. The correct figure would be five out of six occurrences of the two-terms-and-out pattern. Still, at first glance the pattern seems to pack a punch. Judis derives its meaning thus:

The chief obstacle that any Democratic nominee will face is public resistance to installing a president from the same party in the White House for three terms in a row.

Judis often strikes me as a smart analyst. I appreciate someone studying history for patterns that can help us understand the present, although it must be done with great humility and skepticism about whether the past is a map to the future. Those qualities are mostly absent in this case. Perhaps Judis bears no responsibility for the headline, in which case he should perhaps complain to whomever did. But, at the risk of being pedantic, “History” does not “show” that Clinton will probably lose.

Two years before a presidential election the odds are against any presidential aspirant. There are so many ways to not become president. In Clinton’s case, she hasn’t even formally entered the field and there is still some (albeit small) chance she won’t (although if she doesn’t, it won’t be because she realized she was doomed to defeat by a historical pattern).

People who start the nomination campaign as frontrunners often fail to make it to the final round (George Romney, Ed Muskie) or get the nomination but are weakened by an unexpectedly strong intraparty challenge (Walter Mondale by Gary Hart in 1984, Mitt Romney by the seven dwarves in 2012).

In 100 percent of cases, U.S. presidents and all nominees of major U.S. political parties have been men. That is history but not destiny and not a law. If she runs, Clinton’s potential to be the first woman president will be, on balance, an asset.

John Judis
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
John Judis

I don’t doubt that Judis has a point. It’s not so much the third-straight-presidential-win-for-the-same-party trap. It’s that this month’s results tell us that the electorate is kinda down on the Democrats. President Obama is politically toxic (although I don’t believe he deserves to be) and Republicans will surely try to inject that toxin into the next Dem nominee. In Clinton’s case, she served in Obama’s administration and will have to carry some of that politically dank water.

If Judis had based his prediction on the current low popularity of the Democratic “brand,” he would have had a better point, although not a law of history. But the evidence he cites for historical determinism is almost silly.

Look at presidents since World War II, he says. But he’s fudging. FDR, who presided over most of World War II, rather famously won four straight elections and then was succeeded by his fellow Democrat (and last vice president) Harry Truman, who went on to win one more, post-war, in 1948. That’s five straight wins by the Democrats, before, during and after World War II. Judis apparently is counting the 1952 victory of Republican (and major war hero) Dwight Eisenhower over Dem nominee Adlai Stevenson as the first instance of the electorate’s tendency to reject any party after it has held the Oval Office for two terms. But if he’s counting the failure of the Democrats to win for what would have been the sixth straight election as evidence that it’s difficult for any party to win more than two in a row, he’s trying too hard.

And by the way, that string of five straight Democratic president victories (by FDR and Truman) ended a string of three straight Republican victories by three different candidates (Harding, Coolidge, Hoover), which also would have broken the (then non-existent no-third-term-for-the-same-party) jinx.

Starting with Abe Lincoln in 1860, the Republicans won six straight elections and 10 out of 12 with no appearance of the iron pattern of two-terms-and-then-switch-parties. In fact, from 1860 until 1952, there was exactly one instance of the two-terms-and-then-switch-parties pattern, which obviously was no pattern during U.S. presidential history until the election of 1960. If the two-terms-and-out pattern came into effect in 1960, Judis or someone who believes in it needs a theory to explain why history began with John F. Kennedy’s victory over Richard Nixon in 1960.

Which brings up another problem. If the public tends to tire of a party after two terms and throw the bums out, you would like to see some powerful electoral defeats for the candidate of the party seeking a third straight term. But in 1960, JFK’s victory over Nixon was incredibly close (two-tenths of 1 percent in the popular vote) and there are still arguments about whether Democrats in Texas and Illinois stole the election for JFK. It hardly seems to have been foreordained.

Likewise in the next case of two-and-out, when Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey in 1968, the election featured a winning margin of less than a percentage point of the popular vote. In 1976, Jimmy Carter enforced the “third-term jinx” pattern with a close win over Gerald Ford, which some might think had something to do with the Nixon scandals, rather than a law of history.  The next working of the two-and-out pattern would be 2000, when George W. Bush (sort of) beat Al Gore while losing the popular vote. (Judis, in passing, does acknowledge that this one is a problem.)

Anyway, you get the idea. The theory of the law of history (and I should acknowledge that Judis never calls it a law of history) as an expression of a public that has become fed up with whichever party has held the White House for two terms would be a lot more impressive if the cases weren’t all decided by a few (often-disputed) votes.

I apologize for getting so het up about a piece you might never have read by a writer whose thinking is usually more disciplined. But I suspect that if you watch/listen for it, you’ll see a lot more invocations of the “law” that will hinder Clinton’s candidacy, so be ready to annoy your friends and acquaintances.

By the way, if we were to assume that every presidential election is like a coin flip, with two possible outcomes decided purely by chance, MinnPost’s numbers guru David Brokken tells me that chances of getting heads (or tails) five out of six flips is 19 percent, compared to 31 percent odds of getting three heads and three tails. For some reason, which is way over my head probabilities-wise, the likeliest outcome is a 4-2 split of the six flips, at 47 percent.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/20/2014 - 09:40 am.

    History also shows

    that Barack Obama was unlikely to win the presidency in 2008.
    And neither B. Obama or H. Clinton would have even been eligible to run for much of our country’s history.
    History is one guide to the future, but as Judis (and Erik) realize, far from a perfect predictor.

  2. Submitted by Tim Walker on 11/20/2014 - 09:43 am.

    100 percent of the women who have run for POTUS have lost, so there’s that.

    • Submitted by E Gamauf on 11/20/2014 - 03:22 pm.

      And add to that “blonde women!” Staggering statistic

      I guess the people who need to hear this, would be the Republicans who
      were pretty frantically running against her in 2008 – and seem to be gearing to do so in 2016!

      Like baseball statistics – anything rarely or never happened before
      will never happen. Until it does.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/20/2014 - 10:12 am.

    Isn’t this the topic of a writer searching for a few inches of text?

    It’s a little early to be writing of precedence for a candidate that hasn’t even declared.

    How about the unlikelihood of the second brother of a family already with 2 former presidents being elected?

    Or how about the unlikelihood of a President with former Canadian citizenship with a Hispanic surname? (Now wouldn’t this candidate be the perfect one to usher in the North American Union, the Amero, and the NAFTA Superhighway??)

    It’s all unlikely until it happens.

  4. Submitted by THOMAS REYNOLDS on 11/20/2014 - 10:16 am.

    The Question

    The real question is at 70 years old does she really wish to take on being President? For her it is flattering to be considered a frontrunner for the job, but in reality her time has passed. She will use her influence to help someone gain national acceptance.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 11/20/2014 - 04:11 pm.

      It’s really amusing

      that all of these people who deify Reagan are suddenly consumed with concern about age. Also in a comment about Minnesota’s low unemployment, Mr. Reynolds complains about those over fifty being forced into retirement. Political ideology aside, I would think even he could see the blatant hypocrisy of his position.

  5. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 11/20/2014 - 12:03 pm.

    History Also Shows That

    The vast majority of Americans are woefully ignorant of history and take very little of it into account when casting their ballots. If the 2014 election showed anything, it’s that even recent history — does anyone even *remember* that we had a federal government shutdown in the fall of 2013? — plays little into the deliberations of a goodly number of voters.

    History is fun for the political-geeks and history perusers, but for most folks? Meh, that’s the past….who cares…..

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 11/20/2014 - 12:20 pm.

    Judis’s mind looks at a pattern in post-WW II years, so it’s irrelevant for Eric Black to go on and on about earlier history.

    It’s highly relevant to think of the voters’ recent tendency to dump the party that’s been in the Presidency for eight years (or two consecutive terms) when it comes to the viability of Hilary Clinton’s campaign for the office. Recent history is against her winning, because she’s a Democrat following a Democrat who’s been in office eight years–like him or not.

    That’s not fate. That’s simply a pattern that one of the U.S.’s most trenchant national-politics journalists has perceived, and played around in his mind. Don’t be so upset, Eric!

    • Submitted by E Gamauf on 11/20/2014 - 03:59 pm.

      Upset? Prognostication is a pre-game show.

      Baseball statistics are like that:
      Something to get all excited about & waste time, because the future is after all,
      foretold in a carnival sideshow!: It MUST be true.

      The original topic owes more to meme-generation, I think:
      Creating myths about why a thing must happen, or conversely why it cannot possibly happen
      and associating them to some “historical trend” as though that makes it valid.

      There is no universal law of politics.
      Women & minorities wouldn’t have the vote if we applied that carnival reasoning.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/20/2014 - 06:08 pm.

      That’s called ‘cherry-picking’

      What reason does he have for picking this particular sample, other than it supports his hypothesis?

  7. Submitted by jason myron on 11/20/2014 - 05:39 pm.

    Clinton scares the hell out of the GOP.

    Ask any democratic voter about the GOP running Ted Cruz or Scott Walker and they’ll say “yes..PLEASE do.” All the GOP can do regarding Clinton is start listing superficial reasons why she shouldn’t, including, oddly enough, her age. Coincidence? No way. Outright fear of getting waxed in 2016? Absolutely.

    • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 11/21/2014 - 08:54 am.

      As well as

      almost everyone else too. I’m hoping she is so unlikely that she doesn’t even consider running. Age has nothing to do with it. Whitewater and Benghazi are some of the reasons why she would never get my vote.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/21/2014 - 09:30 am.

        But then

        you’re not likely to vote for ANY Democratic
        (‘Whitewater’ and ‘Benghazi’ are conservative dog whistles).

      • Submitted by jason myron on 11/21/2014 - 01:22 pm.

        Everyone else?

        That must be why she leads any potential GOP challenger by double digits. By the way, we’re all still waiting on that huge new Benghazi revelation…you know, the one that’s going to bust the story wide open? Zzzzz….

  8. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/21/2014 - 04:19 pm.

    History is Irrelevant

    Something has never occurred. Does that mean it never will or it is long overdue? History is irrelevant.

    The next President may be a Democrat, but not this Democrat.

    I will comment on two reason this is the case. The first is that she is not a likable person nor a likable candidate. I am aware of the polls that have her winning the presidency in 2016. Those are the same polls that in 2006 had her winning the Presidency in 2008. Let’s get excited about those polls!

    The second reason is Bill Clinton, who was a likable person. Bill wore the Teflon suit that enabled him to shed the slime that he created. It did however get on those around him. Ask Al Gore. While not a likable person, he had spent the previous eight years to his presidential bid as the VP of a popular president. How did he parlay that resume’ into a loss? Some of the Clinton slime came to rest on Al; Hillary wears it too.

  9. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/23/2014 - 09:41 am.

    Some interesting numbers

    •Obama’s fav/unfav with whites: 38%-52%; Hillary’s fav/unfav: 36%-47%
    •Obama’s fav/unfav with Latinos: 50%-31%; Hillary’s 69%-20%
    •Obama’s fav/unfav with indies: 42%-41%; Hillary’s 35%-37%
    •Obama’s fav/unfav with men: 36%-51%; Hillary’s 37%-48%
    •Obama’s fav/unfav with women: 53%-36%; Hillary’s 50%-33%
    •Obama’s fav/unfav with white women: 45%-45%; Hillary’s 41%-38%

    Mrs. Clinton is barely winning with white women, which underscores the often-reported “democrats’ advantage with women” meme. It turns out that only refers to single and non-white women. Married white women vote republican. Romney carried white women 55-44%.

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